NFL Preview - Kansas City (2-2) at San Francisco (2-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - After a slow start to the season, Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs are starting to look more like the team that began last year with nine straight victories.
Hey, just in time for Smith's big homecoming.
Smith and the Chiefs try to win a third straight game on Sunday as the former top draft pick makes his return to San Francisco to battle the 49ers at Levi's Stadium.
Smith's first game against the franchise that drafted him first overall in 2005 has overshadowed a recent hot stretch by the quarterback and the team. Kansas City avoided an 0-3 start by rolling past Miami 34-15 on Sept. 21, then routed the New England Patriots 41-14 this past Monday night.
In those two wins, Smith has completed 76.5 percent of his passes and thrown for six touchdowns. He posted a 144.4 passer rating in the victory over the Pats.
None of this surprises his former Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh.
"You know, I have never seen Alex Smith not be good. Right from the time we were with him, how he's playing now. He's just always been a very good quarterback," noted Harbaugh.
Smith was San Francisco's starting quarterback when Harbaugh took over head coaching duties with the franchise in 2011 and the duo made it to the NFC Championship game, where they suffered a loss to the New York Giants.
The Smith-led Niners got off to another fast start the following season, with the signal-caller his normally-efficient self over a 6-2 start. However, he suffered a concussion in a tie versus St. Louis in Week 10 and Colin Kaepernick made the start the following week, leading San Francisco to a win over the Chicago Bears.
Kaepernick never gave up the job and helped San Francisco reach the Super Bowl, where the club suffered a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Smith was traded to Kansas City during the offseason for two draft picks.
Smith helped the Chiefs return to the postseason last year and signed a four- year extension this past offseason.
Obviously his first game back in San Francisco would make headlines, but the 30-year-old is more concerned with getting a win.
"I could care less about the stats and out-dueling anybody," said Smith. "And I guess the thing that I'm talking about is I know that this is going to be a story and I have to deal with it. Yeah, and going back there and playing against some of those guys that I played with. But there's a lot of unknowns too -- it's a different place, different stadium, a lot of new faces there as well in some respects. It's different."
It is tough to pinpoint who will be under more pressure in this game: Smith or Kaepernick, who has been very successful under center for the Niners and helped the club avoid a third straight loss with a 26-21 win over Philadelphia last Sunday.
Kaepernick threw a pair of touchdown passes, but was sacked four times, intercepted once and completed only 17 of his 30 pass attempts versus the Eagles. One reason he claimed the starting job over Smith was his ability to make the big plays that the play-it-safe Smith seemed to avoid.
The two now go head-to-head this weekend, but as Kaepernick pointed out won't be directly facing each other on the field.
"I really don't get to face him, our defense does. But, Alex has done a lot of great things in this league. He's done a lot of great things to help me. Nothing but the utmost respect for him," he said.
At 2-2, both the Chiefs and 49ers are third in their respective division. Kansas City is set to play two in a row on the road, visiting San Diego on Oct. 19 following a bye, while San Francisco visits St. Louis and Denver following this game.
Kansas City is visiting San Francisco for the first time since 2002 and has lost four in a row as the visiting team in this series. The Chiefs last beat the Niners as the road team in the two club's first ever meeting in 1971.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Smith will look to be extra precise in this game, a trait that led to him throwing for 14,280 yards and 81 touchdowns in 75 starts with the Niners over eight seasons from 2005-12.
In his last three games, Smith has completed 69.9 percent of his passes and has not been intercepted. That gives the signal-caller a 112.7 passer rating over that span, but Harbaugh doesn't expect his former quarterback to just play it safe this weekend.
"Not an accurate term. He's a football player," Harbaugh said when asked if Smith is simply a game manager.
Smith was helped on Monday night by the return of running back Jamaal Charles from a sprained right ankle and the play of tight end Travis Kelce.
Charles ran the ball 18 times for 92 yards with a score and also caught a pair of touchdown passes, while Kelce set career highs with eight catches for 93 yards. He also caught a TD pass.
Kansas City's offense thrives when Charles touches the football, either on the ground or in the passing game.
"He's a unique player and obviously extremely talented and can do so many different things. ... When you have a weapon like that, you can do run and pass and mix it up, it's obviously extremely helpful," said Smith.
Smith and Charles go up against a Niners defense that ranks second in total (287.3 yards per game) and run defense (69.8 YPG).
San Francisco held Philadelphia to only 22 yards rushing last weekend, the ninth fewest allowed in a single game in franchise history. The 49ers have yielded just 152 total rushing yards over the past three games despite missing linebackers Navarro Bowman and Aldon Smith.
Linebacker Patrick Willis leads the team with 23 tackles and defensive tackle Justin Smith has three sacks on the year as well as five over his past seven games.
"Their front seven is a tough unit," noted Chiefs head coach Andy Reid of the Niners. "Big physical guys, the linebackers can run. I would say that their defense is one of the top defenses out there right now. So we need to make sure we prepare for a good bunch of players there and that's what we'll do."
Kansas City has had its own success on defense, ranking eighth against the pass (221.5 YPG) and eight in points allowed (19.8 PPG). The Chiefs are one of just two teams to not give up a rushing touchdown this season and had three takeaways versus the Patriots, including a pick-six by safety Husain Abdullah.
Linebacker Justin Houston had two sacks versus New England and became the second-fastest player in team history to reach 30 for his career. He did so in 47 games, behind only Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas, who hit the plateau in 31 games.
While Kaepernick is engineering just the league's 22nd-ranked pass attack, the Niners are rushing for 138.5 yards per game and will try to maintain that success this weekend. Running back Frank Gore totaled 119 yards on 24 carries versus the Eagles, but also caught a 55-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick.
Kaepernick himself ran for 58 yards, marking the first time in his career he has run for 50-plus yards in three straight games.
That is one thing that perhaps separates him from Smith, but Harbaugh won't rate the two against each other.
"Never been a big fan of comparisons. Colin's play has spoken for itself," he said.
San Francisco is hoping to have two key pieces of its offense for this game. Right tackle Anthony Davis made his season debut versus the Eagles, but left late in the first quarter with a left knee injury, while talented tight end Vernon Davis was forced out in the third due to a back injury.
Neither practiced on Wednesday and their status is unknown.
There is a lot of similarities between these clubs, with the Chiefs perhaps having the slight edge on offense and the Niners possessing the better defense.
Does that make the Smith-Kaepernick battle the x-factor? If so, Smith will need to make sure he sticks to what he does well and doesn't try to do too much versus his former team.
"You focus in on what you do. All the distractions, going home and all that -- it doesn't mean anything," said Reid. "You're there to play the game and once you've said hi to your buddies it's over. You're playing the game, that's what you're doing."
San Francisco showed a little Smith influence versus the Eagles by holding the ball for just over 42 minutes in the game, but the Chiefs move at a much slower pace than Philadelphia. That means mistakes must be kept to a minimum and that should give Smith the edge over the flashier Kaepernick.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Chiefs 24, 49ers 21
10/05 07:55:08 ET